10 Word Stress: Overview

Word stress, also called lexical stress, is an important suprasegmental feature in English because it determines so many other aspects of pronunciation.

Word Stress

  • First, word stress determines which vowels in a word will be pronounced with a clear vowel vs. schwa.
  • Second, word stress impacts the pronunciation of consonants: the unvoiced stop consonants /t/, /p/ and /k/ are pronounced in English with aspiration either initially or in stressed syllables, but without aspiration in non-initial unstressed syllables.
  • Third, word stress determines which vowel(s) in a word will be pronounced longer vs. shorter, including which vowel gets the primary stress and can therefore be marked with even greater length via focus.
  • Fourth, word stress determines which syllable is marked with the highest pitch, lowest pitch or some other distinct pitch change.
  • Finally, word stress also determines which syllable, if any, will be marked via increased volume.

Word Stress Controls an Intonation Contour

Note: Primary stress is marked via the big bubble, secondary stress via the medium bubble, and unstressed via the small bubble.

Word stress errors which do not change vowel quality are only minimally damaging – i.e., when a word’s primary stressed vowel is instead pronounced with secondary stress and vice versa. However, English strongly prefers alternating stressed vs. unstressed syllables. That is, it’s very rare for English words to contain two stressed syllables in a row, though exceptions include compound words such as “housekeeper” and certain prefixed words like “triangle” and “nonlinear”.

As a result, word stress errors that reduce a word’s ordinarily stressed clear vowels to schwa almost always exchange the quality of a word’s ordinarily unstressed vowel(s) from schwa to clear. In other words, a word stress error can easily alter the pronunciation of every vowel in a word, a major problem since listeners rely heavily on a word’s vowel template.

Common Word Stress Errors

  • Most word stress errors are made because of modeling a word’s pronunciation on one of its more frequent cognates.
  • Some students’ word stress errors are due to modeling their pronunciation on similarly spelled words that are pronounced differently.
    • Students’ basic strategy of using the known to figure out the unknown is not the problem. English word stress is highly patterned, as can be seen by searching all words whose spelling matches a student’s problem word from its stressed vowel to the end of the word
  • For examples, see:

Additionally, where ordinarily stressed syllables beginning with /t/, /p/, or /k/ are instead pronounced unstressed, L1 English listeners are likely to hear the those sounds as /d/, /b/, or /g/, respectively. This would negatively impact the listener’s ability to find the spoken word in their mental dictionary, which relies heavily on the sounds of consonants, particularly for high functional load consonants.

As a result, word stress errors can easily cause listeners to be unable to identify the word the speaker is saying and therefore perhaps unable to identify the boundary between words. Additionally, when speakers put prominence, or focus, on a nonstandard vowel within a word because of failing to follow the word’s standard word stress pattern, listeners’ attention will still be drawn to that word – but what listeners are likely to notice is the word’s nonstandard pronunciation, not the idea to which the speaker aimed to draw listeners’ attention. For example, when a student puts prominence on the word “economics” but pronounces it following the word stress pattern for “economy”.

In sum, word stress errors in English are frequently very damaging because of the disastrous domino effect they put into motion.

Where to Place Stress

Unfortunately, there is no simple rule for determining where the stress falls in a word. However, there are some common features which affect the stress in a word, such as words with prefixes or suffixes, the origin of a word, or the grammatical function. Below is a short list of more common stress patterns found in English.

Words with an affix–a prefix or a suffix–will typically alter the stress pattern of a word. With prefixes, this is a bit easier to determine. If a word contains a prefix, such as pre-, dis-, ex-, re-, over-, under-, etc., a good rule to follow is that the stress will fall on the first syllable of the root word.

For example:

  • undo –> un-DO
  • overcome –> over-COME
  • extend –> ex-TEND
  • understand –> un-der-STAND

One exception to this pattern, as we’ve mentioned before, are compound words. That is, when a prefix is attached to a noun in such a way that the resulting word is a noun compound. Notice the above examples–they are all verbs with prefixes attached. When the resulting word is a noun, the stress will be placed on the prefix.

For example:

  • overcoat –> O-ver-coat
  • underwear –> UN-der-wear
  • output –> OUT-put

Understanding the grammatical function of a word is very important when trying to figure out where the stress falls in a word, especially those that have a prefix.

Suffixes are not quite as nice and neat as prefixes. Suffixes often results in one of three stress patterns:

  1. They are stress-neutral — that is, they do not affect the placement of stress
  2. They cause stress to move to the penult — that is, the stress moves to the second-to-last syllable
  3. They cause stress to move to the antepenult — that is, the stress moves to the third-to-last syllable
Stress-neutral suffixes Penult-shifting suffixes Antepenult-shifting suffixes
-cial or -tial

The above table is not a complete list, but should provide a good starting place.

There are also borrowed suffixes from French which demand stress in a word, but these are a bit more rare. One common suffixes borrowed from French which demands stress in a word is NEER, like eng-i-NEER.

Other common suffixes borrowed from French that “steal” the stress from a word include:

  • -ee (trust-EE)
  • -esque (pic-tur-ESQUE)
  • -ese (di-o-CESE)
  • -ette (kitch-e-NETTE)
  • -ique (cri-TIQUE)




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Oral Communication for Non-Native Speakers of English Copyright © 2020 by Timothy Kochem, Monica Ghosh, Lily Compton, and Elena Cotos is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.